Nine Lives and Nine Years…..Interviewing Tony Kokol
By guest blogger: Scott Douglas Jacobsen
Scott Jacobsen: To begin, how did you come into the world of addiction services? Was it a personal reason, or a professional reason or wanting the help the greater good?
Tony Kokol: It comes out of my personal story. I am in recovery. Due to my addiction, I ended up in prison. I got released to a treatment centre/halfway house. It was there that I cleaned up. It was through that process of recovery through that treatment centre that my journey on this side of the fence started.
Jacobsen: Given your personal experience and given your experience with Fresh Start Recovery, are the demographics divided between men and women slanted more towards men than women – addiction and recovery?
Kokol: I don’t know if they are slanted. I would think on the treatment end of it they are. There are more options available for men then women in Calgary.
The struggle of treatment for women comes down to space and support –If she needs to go to treatment. What happens to the children? I think that’s where a big struggle lies. I think it would be fantastic to have more women’s treatment, where the children could be with the mother, and not break up the family. That is what we need more of in this city!
Jacobsen: When it comes to the process of recovery from addiction, what stages tend to be the most emotionally difficult and/or physically painful in terms of withdrawal?
Kokol: It would probably be the initial. That initial detox, the first 90 days or the first year. There is a continuum. They talk about a three-year continuum for the process of recovery. In the first year, we touch base on that physical aspect. We are still physically detoxing and the cells in our body are rearranging and getting back to normal. The toxins are leaving our bodies. Once we detox, are able to focus, and our memory comes back, the mental capability will start to be able to place our emotions a little better, and to prioritize them. In the third year, they talk about touching base with the spiritual aspect of recovery, where we learn to think of others and aren’t so self-centered and start placing other people ahead of us – and start understanding empathy and compassion a bit more. This is where the gifts of recovery flourish.
Jacobsen: What has been one of the more emotionally touching stories that you’ve heard in your time at Fresh Start Recovery?
Kokol: I’ve heard a lot. There’s a fellow in my group right now. His wife has cancer. She wants him to complete treatment. She wants him to remain at Fresh Start. It is an extended program. It is 4 months long. His heart breaks. His wife is sick. She’s taking care of everything. She has a job. She’s a real go-getter. It is a realization that she might not get better. She wants him to stay there. It might be a cold reality that she wants him to be there because she might not be there when he’s done. So, he can be a good dad, when she’s not there. It can get pretty deep.
You can go a few layers down. It can get heart wrenching. Our work life demands us to be present and live with grace. Where in the morning, we get news of one of our men passing – one of the alumni, then in the evening there is a celebration of the group gratitude ceremony. Men are laughing and reuniting with their family and our hearts grieve for the lost life yet we are able to also celebrate and find joy in the evening for the men’s completion of group.
Jacobsen: Of course, there are many factors. But if you could target not one cause, but one strong positive correlate, of addiction in Canadian society, what would it be? How would you recommend Canadian policymakers and even on-the-ground activists help deal with what seems like a growing issue, in this country?
Kokol: That’s a tough answer. I think probably the biggest situation that I’ve seen is accessibility. There are many layers to it and the view I have is working from the frontline. These are the struggles that I see. There are many more when it comes to policies and laws. What I see is that when the individual is ready for treatment, a time to get in, not having that opportunity due to bed availability is a huge hindrance, we have 100 people on the wait list.
What happens when an individual will come to his senses, hit that dark point in life, be ready, and is in the vulnerable point, on the cusp, it can go either way. He is on the edge and seeks help. He knocks on the doors of recovery and there isn’t a bed. It is disheartening. I run into it all of the time. All of the time. People reach out to me, “Hey Tony, help me.” I know a lot of people who need access to treatment right away. The wait is detrimental to many.
But I know, we never have enough. If there was anything that we could do, it would be the politicians and the powers that be to raise an eyebrow about this. If we want to do something sustainable we are all going to have to work together. From there, we need long term treatment. I don’t think there is a 30-day program or a 90-day program that will suffice. We need long term treatment and then a recovery oriented system of care to keep that individual healthy. There isn’t a quick cure. We need to embrace these people. It is a long-term solution. Let’s provide some structured housing and support after that, let’s make sure they are gainfully employed and trained in the program, and get them some assisted housing, so they can get back on their feet – to see them until the end. That’s what I think.
Jacobsen: You noted long-term care. The continuum of care seems like a growing part of recovery where recovery centres will deal with recovering addicts for the long-term. How has this been for you – if you’re undergoing this process yourself?
Kokol: I’ve done it. I’ve lived it. I’ve seen it on the other end. I’ve seen men go through it. I believe it is the only way to go. The truth of the matter is that the time most people hit a bottom and are ready for treatment. Most life areas have been dampened and harmed. They annihilated their financial resources, family, and social support. It is a time in their life when they not only need to recover from addiction, but the need to recover all areas of life.
You can’t sober someone up, and then boot them out to the door, especially when they are unemployable, have financial issues, housing issues, and so on. All you’ve done is sober up the person who is still afflicted. It is a social fact of social return on investment. It is something like every dollar we invest, that we get between seventeen – twenty-four dollars back from that person giving back to society. Social profit must be a lens we start to look through.
Look at my life……I was the guy that needed treatment. I came in so broken that I needed someone to help house me, clothe me, help me get into the workforce, help me to text, to run a computer. I lost these skills over fifteen years of being on the street. I lost living skills even. I needed a hand. So, I embraced that support net and structure. It turned out fine for me. It is ironic you phoned. Today is my nine years clean.
Jacobsen: [Laughing] It is the anniversary?
Kokol: Yes, it is the anniversary.
Jacobsen: For those that are just reading this, basically, we’ve had trouble calling [Laughing] and it is basically a random call. So, congratulations.
Kokol: I know it. I came to treatment and I was broken. All major life areas were annihilated. Nine years later, I live a happy, productive life. I have a home. I have all of the things that people would want. I have a career. People are important to me. Family is important to me. I don’t break hearts no more. I’m not a burden. I contribute. I have self-esteem. I have purpose. Thank God nobody gave up on me, I was forty-six-years-old by the time I hit a bottom to be willing to change.
It was forty-six years of being sick and screwing up. Thank God for Fresh Start, there were parole officers, counsellors, and people in the twelve-step community too – and certain family members. Thank God, they didn’t write me off.
Jacobsen: By analogy, people see problems with volunteers for international organizations. Young people, for instance, in college will travel to another part of the world to volunteer, but they might be a little reckless in the way they volunteer. They might have good intentions, but they can do some damage. Sometimes, more damage than good.
To draw that analogy over to the context that we’re talking about, for those that want to help volunteer in the homeless community or those that are addicted, or their family members or extended family members in their own recovery processes, what are possible landmines in their path that they can avoid to reduce the amount of harm that they might cause, even for the best of intentions? What tend to be the more effective ways of volunteering for the recovery community, and the addicted community?
Kokol: Landmines, I think the only landmine the person would have is themselves and the attitude they approach to work with this demographic of people, and to realize this is someone’s brother. This is someone’s father. This is someone’s mother. This is someone’s sister. To always exercise empathy and compassion, and to prepare yourself, they are not less. They are not less. They’ve got the disease of addiction. The brain doesn’t work the way everybody’s else does.
They’ve indulged in a substance for an extended period of time. That was their own choice. Just like everybody else, but that was their choice, for certain individuals, they cross the line. The brain becomes hardwired after doing it for an extended period of time. Sometimes, it is only a couple times. Other times, it s a few months. Everybody is different. That is where this line is drawn with this disease of addiction.
People scoff at it, or they don’t understand it. But it is true. The phenomenon of craving occurs. Other people can do it. They don’t cross the line. They don’t experience this craving. It is not that they didn’t make bad choices. Maybe, not more than any other teenager who chose to experiment. I think everybody has to have empathy and understanding, and to realize that we’re not all exempt from a perfect life.
I think, as a society or as a healthy person, we owe it to the less fortunate to assist them and to enhance their quality of life. If there is any landmine, it would be: How do you approach the task at hand. And how do you go about it? And what’s your motivation?
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Tony.